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COVID-19: Rutte announces new Dutch 'partial lockdown', Austria and Germany mull new restrictions

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By Euronews  with AP, AFP
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A restaurant opens up in Utrecht on April 28, 2021, as lockdown restrictions were eased. Such moves could now go into reverse due to rising coronavirus cases.
A restaurant opens up in Utrecht on April 28, 2021, as lockdown restrictions were eased. Such moves could now go into reverse due to rising coronavirus cases.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Peter Dejong

The Netherlands will go into a three-week partial lockdown, the caretaker Prime Minister announced on Friday evening.

"Tonight we have a very unpleasant message with very unpleasant and far-reaching decisions," Mark Rutte said in a televised address.

The lockdown, which begins on Saturday night, will see bars, restaurants and supermarkets close at 20:00 and non-essential stores shut their doors at 18:00. Professional sports will be played in empty stadiums and people are being urged to work from home as much as possible.

Rutte's announcement was followed by protests in the Hague where some 200 demonstrators clashed with officers and mounted police outside the Justice and Security Ministry. Police used a water cannon to disperse protesters.

Authorities in several western European countries are also gearing up for potential new restrictions to curb rising cases of the coronavirus, as the pandemic casts a looming shadow over the forthcoming winter.

Austria is weighing up lockdowns for unvaccinated people, while Germany's health agency has called for large events to be cancelled.

The number of new cases across the 31 countries of the EU/EEA rose by 19% week on week, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) revealed in its latest weekly report released on Friday.

This surge is despite relatively high vaccination rates.

While nations in Western Europe all have vaccination rates over 60% — and some like Portugal and Spain are much higher — that still leaves a significant portion of their populations without protection.

Netherlands: new restrictions anticipated

The partial lockdown means the Dutch national team playing a World Cup qualifier against Norway on Tuesday night behind closed doors.

The Dutch football federation and top two professional leagues had insisted ahead of Rutte's announcement that football stadiums — which have strict COVID measures in place — are not a major source of infections.

“This looks like policy poverty,” the organisations said, adding that government officials “no longer know what to do.”

An organisation representing bar and restaurant owners also slammed the government.

“Hospitality businesses are again being presented with the bill for failing government policy,” the group said in a statement.

On Thursday the Dutch public health institute recorded 16,364 new positive tests in 24 hours — the highest number of any time during the pandemic that has killed more than 18,600 people in the Netherlands.

The rise in cases has put the country's health care sector under renewed strain.

Last week, the government reintroduced orders to wear face masks in stores and expanded the use of the country's COVID pass — which proves the holder has been fully vaccinated, has recovered from COVID-19 or has tested negative. Since then, cases have only increased.

Such moves carry political risks: thousands protested against the reintroduction of masks in The Hague last Sunday.

The Netherlands, where nearly 85% of adults are fully vaccinated, largely ended lockdown restrictions at the end of September.

Utrecht has cancelled Saturday's annual Sinterklaas — the Dutch Father Christmas — event for children because of the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Germany: call for a ban on large events

Germany's disease control centre is calling for people to cancel or avoid large events and to reduce their contact with others.

On Friday the Robert Koch Institute reported a rise in the infection rate to 263.7 new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days, up from 249.1 the previous day. Another 48,640 new cases were reported after the daily total topped 50,000 for the first time on Thursday.

In its weekly report released late on Thursday, the institute said it "urgently advises cancelling larger events if possible, but also reducing all other unnecessary contacts". It added that if such events cannot be avoided, people should take a test before attending regardless of whether they are vaccinated.

Although the infection rate is not as high as in some other European countries, its relentless rise has set off alarm bells.

Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet the country's 16 state governors to coordinate nationwide measures next week, and parliament is considering legislation to provide a new legal framework for winter restrictions.

Most German regions restrict access to many indoor facilities and events to people who have been vaccinated against the virus, have recovered from COVID-19 or recently received negative test results — with the latter category now excluded in some areas. But enforcement is often slack.

The vaccination campaign has been flagging recently, with slightly over two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated. Germany has so far resisted a move to make vaccinations compulsory for any professional group. Officials also want more people who were inoculated months ago to get booster jabs.

German cities went ahead with outdoor Carnival celebrations this week — but the head of Cologne's party cancelled public appearances after testing positive.

Austria considers 'lockdown for the unvaccinated'

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Friday he was waiting for parliament to give the green light on Sunday for a nationwide lockdown of people who have not been vaccinated or cured of the coronavirus, as the country faces a rapid rise in cases.

"The aim is clear: we want to give the green light on Sunday to a national containment for unvaccinated people," Schallenberg told a news conference, without specifying when the measure would come into force.

The regional state of Upper Austria and the city-state of Salzburg, which have seen some of the highest infection rates, have already introduced the lockdown from Monday.

For the measure to apply nationwide, it will have to be approved by parliament and a meeting of regional heads of government over the weekend.

Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein also announced on Friday that he would order compulsory vaccination of health workers.

Some 64% of the population has received the two doses of vaccine in Austria, which is below the European average of 67%. Schallenberg called the vaccination rate "shamefully low".

Austria is seeing one of the most serious outbreaks in Western Europe. On Thursday, official figures showed 760.6 reported new cases per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days — a rate three times that of neighbouring Germany.

To date, more than 11,640 people infected with the new coronavirus have died in the country of 9.8 million people.

A series of measures have already been taken in recent weeks in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 and encourage more people to get vaccinated. On Monday, new rules took effect barring unvaccinated people who haven't recovered from an infection from restaurants, hotels, hairdressing salons and large public events.

'Take precautionary measures now', say experts

The World Health Organization said coronavirus deaths rose by 10% in Europe in the past week, an official declaring last week that the continent was "back at the epicentre of the pandemic".

Much of the rise is being driven by spiralling outbreaks in Russia and Eastern Europe — where vaccination rates tend to be low — but countries in the west such as Germany and Britain recorded some of the highest new case tolls in the world.

The large number of unvaccinated people, combined with a widespread post-lockdown resumption of socialising as well as a slight decline in immunity for people jabbed months ago is driving up the pace of infections — according to Dr Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical lecturer at Exeter University College of Medicine and Health.

"We've got to take precautionary measures now, and the sooner you take precautionary measures the better," he told Euronews last week.

"My advice is: if you haven't been immunised, please do so, and you must get your seasonal influenza vaccine as well, wear your mask, wear an FFP2 mask now, and reduce your interactions in crowds. We need to suppress the rising number of cases."

He argues that no single measure will control the pandemic: "To really control it, it has to be multi-layered ... avoid crowds, avoid poorly ventilated places, be immunised, wear your mask," he says.

Experts say countries can probably contain that latest surge in cases without resorting to stringent shutdowns that devastated economies, disrupted education and harmed people's mental health.

But, they add, not all restrictions can be avoided and authorities must boost vaccination rates.

"I think the era of locking people up in their homes is over because we now have tools to control COVID — the testing, vaccines and therapeutics," said Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. "So I hope people will do the things they have to do, like put on a mask."